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Life as Commons

 Anti-austerity protest in Athens, Greece, June 2015
Anti-austerity protest in Athens, Greece | © DTRocks I CC BY-SA 4.0

The coronavirus pandemic crisis has triggered a new wave of collective practices that gesture towards the same necessity as the “squares movement” (including the Arab Spring, the Indignados, and the Occupy movements): another form of social organisation is urgently needed. Different neighbourhood initiatives, movement-based campaigns, dispersed rhizomatic acts of solidarity, community-based management of urban and rural territories: all these processes and acts are spreading throughout the world, under the radar of dominant media, and usually bypassing market-oriented channels as well as directly or indirectly clashing with governmental priorities.

By Stavros Stavrides

It seems that within these processes an intensive production of the common develops, the common being neither just a set of products and services to be shared nor a set of organisational choices to ensure a more just distribution to those in need of the crucial means for survival. The common emerges as both the form and the content of social relations that transcend the limitations and the market-worshipping cynicism of contemporary capitalism.

Three different factors are shaping the rise of the common in, against, and beyond the pandemic crisis. It is not that these factors did not exist before the crisis. And they certainly combine in many cases in producing different everyday habits for the most deprived populations of contemporary metropolises. The pandemic crisis, however, has revealed their convergent dynamics and has made it urgently necessary for people to invent collectively by mobilising experiences related to these factors.

The first factor has to do with survival. In the peripheries of big cities, in stigmatised ghettos and indigenous communities, in the trajectories of precarious work and precarious life, people experience exclusion and insecurity. If remnants of the welfare state still seem to provide a safety net for some, for most life is at the mercy of the market (and the market is merciless) or depends on the contingencies of global power arrangements (including wars, famine, waves of refugees, trade wars, etc.).

The excluded and those who sense that no authorities will ever care for them try in many cases to organise in order to secure the means of their survival. In many neighbourhoods of the world, networks of care are developing from below: food is prepared and distributed to those unable to obtain it, means for hygienic protection are produced and distributed, information and knowledge are gathered and transmitted through diffuse media (social media, community radio stations, community centres, etc.). Only to map the networks of collectively organised food distribution (including fruit and vegetables from farmer cooperatives, “just basket” initiatives and clean water provision in informal neighbourhoods), one would need to collect a vast amount of globally disseminated information.

The second factor has to do with long-established experiences of cooperation. Different traditions of mutual help that stem from rural life (such as mutirão in Brazil, ayuda mutua in Latin America and the Caribbean, or ubuntu in South Africa) or from indigenous life (in the context of minga in Colombia and sumak kawsay in Andean countries) are gaining renewed momentum in the face of this crisis. In many areas of the world, cooperation has been part of a collective wisdom that keeps on inventing skills and takes shape in rules developed through negotiations between those who work together. Neoliberal individualism explicitly targeted such traditions not simply by destroying them but also by taking advantage of their productive potentialities. Thus, the neoliberal ideal of the individual “entrepreneurial” self (the self-as-entrepreneur) combines with a renewed appraisal of cooperation considered as “synergy” (a usual euphemism for cooperation under the command of capital). Cooperation has been stripped from the power that gives those who work the opportunity to choose the scope, priorities, and forms of their working together.

However, cooperation resurfaces as a productive force of the common, inventively utilising all available – albeit scarce – means. In Mexican autonomous neighbourhoods, in many US volunteer communities, in the villas miserias of Buenos Aires, and in the Brazilian favelas people have been working together to produce masks. Collective kitchens that cook food for those in need are emerging in many cities (in Athens, Santiago de Chile, Rio, etc.). In Santa Catarina in Brazil landless movement (MST) militants have modified their cachaca distillery in order to produce alcohol for the Curitibanos public hospital.

Cooperation escapes capitalist command in a myriad of everyday practices of care organised by urban populations. The network Covid Entraide France is connecting an immense number of volunteer service providers in the francophone world who are offering their help to the populations stricken by the pandemic; in Greece the Menoume Mazi network has been organising solidarity and struggling against unjust policies during the crisis (including issues of refugee support, labour rights, and information blackout). Analogous networks have developed in Italy, the UK, and other countries.

The third factor (already present before the crisis) that has been contributing to the emergence of the common is the spread of concrete ideas for a world of equality and solidarity beyond capitalism. Homeless movements in Latin America and Africa, recuperated and occupied enterprises, informal workers’ organisations, solidarity economy initiatives, indigenous people’s projects of autonomy, and radical unions continue to produce fragments of this world. The common emerges in all these engaged practices not simply as a function of people’s demands but as a plan for organising life in common. The everyday has become a crucial field of struggle and of experiments in social organisation. Terms to describe these lived experiments may be borrowed from the past, such as “popular power” or “autonomy”, or improvised in the present as communalidad or “communisation”.

Many such movements have been mobilised to address the pandemic crisis. Their acquired experience, along with their grounding in everyday forms of cooperation, gives them the power to organise people on a collective basis. Groups of young activists in Chile that were providing medical help for the victims of police brutality in the mass demonstrations of the recent uprising have developed an initiative called Movimiento Salud en Resistencia (Health in Resistance Movement): their efforts aim at developing self-managed health services (the “People Take Care of the People” campaign). The South African shack dwellers movement Abahlali baseMjondolo is fighting against evictions happening in the midst of lockdown. Their communities organise in support of the poor homeless people who suffer from a lack of clean water and food in the settlements. The movement also actively expressed its solidarity with the healthcare workers of the country. Similar social movement initiatives are unfolding in Senegal, Burkina Faso, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

When engagement in common projects connects to survival urgencies and mobilises shared skills of cooperation, collective empowerment develops rapidly. Participants in corresponding initiatives see that self-organisation and self-management work: people may be fed, supported, given the means to know and to shape opinions. People can take their lives in their own hands.

It is in the context of the pandemic crisis that collective survival efforts, cooperation potentialities (deeply embedded in the everyday reality of those who work) and aspirations for a just society converge. Not because anti-capitalist ideologies suddenly became triumphant, nor because a consciousness of exploitation develops among those exploited as a result of exemplary activist acts. But possibly because many people are forced to realise that if they don’t take their lives in their hands, they are destined to be expendable. It is this experience-based understanding that opens minds and hearts to the hope of a different future. Maybe today a slogan that seemed pretty much self-evident and apolitical for many is acquiring an urgent and inspiring meaning. Zapatistas often say, “Down with death. Long live life” (Viva la vida, muera la muerte). Do they simply mean that life is both the source and the scope of the common in prospect of an emancipated society?